By Jake Watt
12th December 2021

In 1566, Swiss Renaissance alchemist Theophrastus von Hohenheim originated the term "Undine" in his book 'A Book on Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies, and Salamanders, and on the Other Spirits'. Over hundreds of years, subsequent storytellers gradually morphed the Undine into a creature similar to a mermaid. In these yarns, men who married an Undine were doomed to die if they were ever unfaithful to her. Writer/director Christian Petzold ('Phoenix', 'Barbara', 'Jerichow') reconfigures this centuries-old tale into a modern-day magical realist romance/breakup drama.

We meet Undine Wibeau (Paula Beer, 'Never Look Away', 'The Wolf's Call') in the process of being dumped by her callow boyfriend, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz, 'Alone in Berlin'), at a café near Berlin's Senate Department for Urban Development and Housing, where she gives lectures on the city's architectural history as she circles around scale models depicting the past and present. "If you leave me, I'll have to kill you," she glumly tells Johannes. But he doesn't believe her and slinks off.


Returning to the café after her shift ends to make good on her word, Undine instead has a meet-cute with Christoph (Franz Rogowski, 'A Hidden Life', 'Happy End'), a softly-spoken industrial diver who repairs underwater structures. They quickly fall on the floor (doused in water from a collapsing fish tank) and into each others arms. But, alas, things aren't so simple. As Undine's historical lectures inform us, progress can be difficult - for both urban planners and everyday human beings as they navigate a new romance.

Undine's status as a mythical creature is never mentioned during the film. The bond between the lovers is always the focal point, even as things get weird. Petzold invites us to watch the evolution of a relationship whose logical conclusion isn't particularly logical or conclusive.

As Undine's historical lectures inform us, progress can be difficult - for both urban planners and everyday human beings as they navigate a new romance.

Petzold's film is littered with striking images, the most notable of which is when the title character goes scuba diving with Christoph and ditches her breathing apparatus to hitch a ride with a humongous catfish. The movie's sound design also slips in subtle, otherworldly elements.

Most of all, 'Undine' benefits from its lead actors, Beer and Rogowski, reunited after starring in Petzold's 'Transit'. They have an easy chemistry and complimentary acting styles. Undine is wise and knowing, Christoph is sweet and naïve. There is a zen-like calm, an air of non-judgmental acceptance between the two of them that only gets thrown out of whack in the final act.

While it might be the slightest of Petzold's films thus far in his career, 'Undine' is a tranquil and supremely touching relationship drama.

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